A SPUD-tacular Friendship
Who knew a second-hand set of Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head could foster a beautiful friendship between Ordway Elementary students and the night custodian?
Kim Mejia works the night shift at Ordway. Her workday begins after the final bell rings and students have left the school. By the time students arrive the next morning, Ms. Kim (as they affectionately call her) has finished her shift and has left the school sparkling for the day. And in Michele Muffoletto’s 4th-grade class, she has left something else — an often humorous and always creative scene created with Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head.
“At first, I thought the students were putting the potatoes in wonky positions,” Muffoletto said, recalling how the friendship began. “But one day I was working late in my classroom and Ms. Kim stopped by and asked if she should stop playing with the potato heads. I told her, ‘Absolutely not! What a fun way for you to communicate with the students.’ And it just took off from there.”
Ms. Kim creates scenes where the potato heads are playing dominoes, reading books and heading to the beach. And in every vignette she leaves a message for the students like “You are all amazing!”
In return, the students leave Ms. Kim their own scenes. The potato heads have played basketball and participated in pillow fights. And, the students also leave notes such as, “Thank you for cleaning our classroom.” “You rock, Ms. Kim!”
“I keep all the notes,” Mejia said. “Every single one.”
Along with the silliness and sweet notes, the potato heads have nurtured students’ empathy. No longer is there a nameless, faceless person who comes in after school to clean their classroom. Muffoletto has always encouraged students to pick up after themselves. But now that they have a relationship with Mejia, they put in extra effort to make sure they don’t leave the classroom messy.
“Ms. Kim told the students it would really help her if all the pencils were picked up off the floor. It was really powerful for the students to hear her request. And now, they make sure they help Ms. Kim out by leaving the classroom tidy at the end of the day.”
Mejia said creating the potato head scenes is a highlight of her job. She uses her lunch hour to pose the plastic spuds. She scours thrift stores for spare potato parts.
“It’s as much fun for me as it is for them,” she said.
“Ms. Kim makes us smile, laugh and giggle,” said a 4th grader. “I love that she takes her own time to make us feel special.”
Another student added that when she arrives at school, she beelines to the potatoes. “I get so excited! I always wonder what Ms. Kim will do.”
“Ms. Kim is like an invisible friend who makes you happy. I’ve learned that you don’t have to see someone every day for them to be your friend,” added another.
Over the past couple of years, Bainbridge Island School District and its schools have emphasized the importance of students’ social and emotional health. Along with academics, the schools teach compassion, empathy and developing self-awareness and relationship skills.
“The relationship between Ms. Kim and the students is evidence that our social and emotional health initiative is working,” said Muffoletto. “This is really a beautiful thing for our students and for all of us. It just makes you smile.”
From the top: Ms. Kim's creations: Domino-playing Potato Heads and Reading Potato Heads; A student puts the finishing touches on the class communication to Ms. Kim; Students created a basketball scene for Ms. Kim; Before school is dismissed, students make sure to tidy up their classroom.